Having a set of well-developed upper traps looks impressive and enhances your overall upper-body strength. Not to mention that stronger upper traps mean a stronger and bigger neck, which may help prevent neck and head injuries.
Problem is, the information surrounding how to strengthen your upper traps is flawed. It’s time to reassess how you train this part of your body with the Performance U training system.
Anatomy of the Upper Traps 2.0
Many coaches, trainers and medical professionals say the primary function of the upper traps is to elevate your shoulders. However, according to University of Newcastle professors Dr. Garth Johnson and Dr. Nikolai Bogduk, the primarily horizontal alignment of upper trapezius fibers makes them biomechanically unable to elevate the scapula (shoulder blades) above normal shoulder level.
So, shrugging your shoulders does not necessarily optimize upper-trap recruitment like you’ve been told. Instead, your upper traps function as stabilizers, helping your shoulders maintain their normal position. Learn more about the anatomy and function of your upper traps here: The Truth About the Trapezius Muscle.
Based on this new information, you need to rethink how you train to develop your upper traps.
Top 5 Upper Traps Exercises
The five exercises below are based on this new understanding of how the upper traps work, and will help you achieve the results you’ve longed for.
The Farmer’s Walk is a great upper-trap builder because the weight in your hands pulls your shoulders down when you walk, which is an unstable motion. Your upper traps work overtime to keep your shoulders from dropping during the carry.
Sets/Duration: 2-4×30-60 seconds
I’m not saying to perform just any Deadlift. It must be heavy, because the weight will pull your shoulders forward and down, engaging your upper traps. This is why most powerlifters have huge upper traps.
The Trap-Bar Deadlift is an extremely effective trap builder for the same reason as the standard Deadlift, but its unique arm position hits your traps at a slightly different angle. I recommend switching off every few weeks between Heavy Deadlifts and Trap-Bar Deadlifts, which should also be heavy.
Note: The trap bar is named for its shape, not for its ability to multi-task as a great upper-trap builder.
The Clean and Jerk, and the Snatch—the two primary Olympic lifts—are also effective trap builders, because you use heavy loads and move explosively. Your traps work to keep your shoulders in a proper position during the entire movement, stimulating strength and size gains.
Note: Olympic lifts are very difficult. If you don’t have perfect technique, stick with the simpler exercises mentioned above.
The Gittleson Shrug
The Gittleson Shoulder Shrug—named after legendary strength coach Mike Gittelson—is my new favorite shoulder-shrug variation. It recruits more muscle fibers, because the traps are forced to move through a larger range of motion than a traditional Shrug, so it stimulates greater muscle growth.
Sets/Reps: 3-4×8-12 each side